Thursday, January 13, 2005

The chronicler of necrophobia

The sudden realisation of one’s own mortality usually occurs to people in their thirties or forties, so it’s called a ‘mid-life crisis’. It seemed to occur to Philip Larkin when he was about ten, which is rotten luck on his part.

Larkin is the ultimate chronicler of necrophobia (fear of death) in the history of literature. No other writer better captures that awful 3am realisation of the shortness of one’s life.

Aubade is one of the last of his poems, published in 1977, and without doubt his greatest, as it says in the minimum number of words everything he had been trying to say for his whole career.

I can’t decide whether I love it for its stark bravery, or hate it for its horrible pessimism. Either way, it provokes a strong reaction for me, which great literature should do.

Here it is in full. Read it if you dare – it won’t cheer you up.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
-- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says
No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


Hey Skipper said...


This is a topic--if that is sufficient word--I think of virtually daily since one memorable night.

In England.

It was in 1982, and I was stationed at RAF Upper Heyford, near Oxford, flying the F-111, and I was 27.

I was en route to homeplate after a late night tanker (aerial refueling) over Scotland. (While that is always a reasonably intense experience, it doesn't much figure into the story.)

As opposed to the mission up to that point, I didn't have much to do. So I turned on the autopilot, turned off the cockpit lights, and stared at the universe and a full moon far more brilliant at 30,000 feet than on the ground.

And it occurred to me of a moment, accompanied by feeling like someone had poured ice water down my spinal cord, that one day that full moon would rise, and I wouldn't be around to see it.

Until then, I scarcely gave death a thought.

Since then, it has been my dreaded companion.

That's a story I have never told anyone until now.

Brit said...


Thanks - a terrific post.

I guess we've all had similar, perhaps less dramatic 'naked lunch' or 'nausea' moments (a sudden moment of self-realisation) at some point.

I'd be interested to know what you think of 'Aubade', or similar works, in the light of that experience.

Duck said...

I think it is a marvelous poem, capturing in very powerful language the experience of dread that we all face at one time or another. I don't recall having any overwhelming, single moment of icy fear as Jeff has expressed, but this passage holds particular poignance for me:

"The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;"

Of the types of existential despair that Larkin catalogues, this one most describes that which haunts me in the early morning hours. Or as Paul Simon puts it in "Slip-sliding Away":

"She said a bad day is when I lie in the bed
And I think of things that might have been"

Hey Skipper said...

While it was icy, it wasn't fear. Well, not exactly, anyway. It was more like conciously taking on board what the subconcious has taken as given. Kind of odd, when I think about it, since by that early point a fairly disturbing number of my pilot friends had "bought the farm."

I think Aubade is singularly stark and arid. The title is ironical, considering an aubade is a song or poem with a motif of greeting the dawn. Yet, oddly, that very irony causes the title to add to the poem's power.

The poem makes clear the attraction religion has to nearly everyone--staring the inevitable straight in the eye would seem to be a recipe for ending up in the fetal position, thumb wedged firmly in mouth, and head in a puddle of drool.

What I can't understand is how, or why, some decline the comfort of religion. That lack of understanding is odd, considering I am one such. I certainly don't claim any particular credit for such an outlook, considering I have no more choice in the matter than in selecting my eyecolor.

Just as daunting as Aubade is Pink Floyd's Time:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

Speaking of, I think it is time for a double Scotch.

Brit said...

Larkin is a lot harsher on religion than we tend to be. He's in the Harry mould:

"...Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die"

The Pink Floyd song nails it all right..."half a page of scribbled lines". Chilling.

And just to round off a good set of maudlin navel-gazing posts, here's the quote from John Greenleaf Whittier:

"Of all sad words of tongue and pen the saddest are
these - it might have been."